It has been twenty-five years since Eric B & Rakim released their debut, Paid in Full, on July 7, 1987, so it’s easy to forget what a significant achievement it was. That year, hip-hop producers like Rick Rubin, Marley Marl (MC Shan, Roxanne Shante), the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy) and Teddy Riley (Kool Moe Dee) had just begun to harness the essential elements of sampling. They used bits and pieces from classic soul, funk and rock, then hid them amidst hard, bludgeoning, TR-808 drum machine tracks – often referred to as the Def Beat – and noisy scratching. Paid In Full was the first album to not only appropriate old records like Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” and the JBs’ “Pass the Peas,” but to lift the swinging tempos, too. It marked a transition from the Def Beat era of omnipresent drum beats and towards a lighter, funkier rhythm. Eric B.’s beats on Paid in Full, particularly the classic single “I Know You Got Soul,” was the catalyst.
This brand new funk not only created the hip-hop’s first real golden age, but its ripple effects could also be felt in alternative-rock bands like R.E.M., Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Cure, and pop artists like Paula Abdul and Madonna. The golden era concurred with the rise of New Jack Swing in R&B, and the two paths are linked: Teddy Riley, the creator of New Jack Swing, established himself working with rappers like Kool Moe Dee’s (How You Like Me Now) and Heavy D. & the Boyz (Living Large). The difference is that Riley wanted to play funk using the latest synthesizer technology. Rap producers chopped and looped samples from the original records, creating something that sounded both timeless and new.
It was during this period that James Brown became one of the most sampled artists in history. With over 100 albums as a solo artist and producer and hundreds of 7-inch singles, and a catalog that spanned four decades of funky soul, Brown was fertile territory for a generation learning the art of crate digging, and finding the most arcane, obscure gems. But one Brown sound stood out from the others: “Funky Drummer,” a 7-inch single that featured a drum solo by then-JBs drummer Clyde Stubblefield. His drum break was used on nearly every major hip-hop album released from 1988 to 1990. (It wasn’t on Paid in Full, but it was on Eric B. & Rakim’s second album, Follow the Leader.) Most famously, the Bomb Squad used it for several tracks on Public Enemy’s seminal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. On “Security of the First World,” the crew didn’t even bother to add a melody or turntable scratching to the Funky Drummer break. They simply looped it so it snapped back and forth, like an eternal rhythm.
Brown himself was nonplussed by the attention. On the title track from his 1988 Full Force-produced comeback I’m Real, he snarled, “Stop sampling me on your records ‘til I’m paid in full.” But it wasn’t just a flood of lawsuits and copyright claims that snuffed out the golden age of rap. When hip-hop culture evolved into new trends, from the jazz-rap period of the early 90s to the luxury rap/”yacht rap” fad of today, the “Funky Drummer” break became a hallmark of a particular era that is now considered old-school.
Still, it’s worth remembering the momentous impact “Funky Drummer” has had. This cheat sheet only covers a sampling of the classic albums that incorporated the break; and an accompanying playlist spans some of the famous songs built around it. It includes a review of Above the Law’s Livin’ Like Hustlas as a tribute to rapper Kevin “KMG” Gulley, who passed in early July. Rest in peace.
Eric B & Rakim, Paid In Full
Paid in Full heralded momentous change in popular music. Eric B. wasn’t the first to sample The JBs, but he was the first to do it right, and his use of “I Know You Got Soul” and “Funky President” (on “Eric B. Is President”) was so seamless that it drew a response from James Brown himself. Meanwhile, Rakim wrote lyrics with timeless metaphors your grandmother could understand: “You’ll sink into the rhyme like quicksand/ Hold and control you ’til I leave/ You fall deep into the style, it’s hard to breathe,” he raps on “As the Rhyme Goes On.” It’s hip-hop poetry at its purest and most refined.
Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back
When Nation of Millions was released, it seemed to give hip-hop a whole new cultural and political identity. But it proved an impossible standard. Produced by the Bomb Squad, it features more than 100 samples (most famously The JBs’ “Funky Drummer” in “Rebel Without a Pause”), a feat too legally expensive to duplicate. With lyrics about New York’s crack plague in “Night of the Living Baseheads” and Louis Farrakhan in “Bring the Noise,” verbal pugilist Chuck D and his court jester Flava Flav captured a moment in history. This is rap’s Mount Rushmore, a feat that won’t be equaled.
Stetsasonic, In Full Gear
Before The Roots, there was Stetsasonic. The Strong Island hip-hop band was willing to try anything, whether it was Miami bass on “Miami Bass,” dancehall on “The Odad” or, disastrously, quiet storm soul with a cover of the ’70s chestnut “Float On.” However, In Full Gear‘s finest tracks sizzle with funky rhythms, DJ-scratched samples from producer Prince Paul and hard rhyming from Daddy-O, Frukwan and MC Delite. Listen to the title track, “DBC Let the Music Play,” “Pen and Paper” and the hip-house gem “Talkin’ All That Jazz” to get a taste of one of the Golden Era’s true sleepers.
N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Compton‘s near-mythic reputation belies its contents. It is justifiably celebrated for classic gangsta raps like “F*ck Tha Police,” Ice Cube’s “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Straight Outta Compton.” But the rest of the album is straight-up MC’ing and funky hip-hop, from MC Ren freestyling “Quiet on Tha Set” to Dr. Dre clowning suckers on “Compton’s N the House.” Then there’s Dre’s radio-friendly hit “Express Yourself” and Arabian Prince’s electro-bass interlude “Something 2 Dance 2,” the latter sounding out of place on this seminal exploration of “the strength of street knowledge.”
Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
It’s a sign of how much hip-hop has changed that Slick Rick was once called misogynist for “Treat Her Like a Prostitute.” Such charges once obscured our appreciation of his incredible storytelling on The Great Adventures. “Children’s Story” is a hoodlum tale that is both funny and tragic. He imagines prison rape on “The Moment I Feared” — a scenario no rapper would touch today, at least not in the first person — and gets the cooties on “Indian Girl.” Nearly every story, from “Hey Young World” to “Teenage Love,” is a revelatory look into the ’80s B-boy id, a scary and wonderful place to be.
Geto Boys, Grip It! On That Other Level
The Geto Boys’ second album is a tough nut to crack. Nestled between angrily lucid claims of black pride (“Talkin’ Loud”), funky James Brown samples and shout-outs to Public Enemy (“No Sellout”) are “Gangsta of Love,” “Let a Ho Be a Ho,” “Mind of a Lunatic,” and songs where they lyrically rape and pillage Houston’s Fifth Ward. Willie D., DJ Akshen (later known as Scarface) and Bushwick Bill were three amoral revolutionaries straight out of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. Along with N.W.A, they were the tipping point in hip-hop’s embrace of gangsterism, an era that has yet to end.
The D.O.C., No One Can Do It Better
In 1989, Dallas transplant The D.O.C. was the best rapper in the West. Dr. Dre was at his peak, too. Mixing soul samples from The JBs’ “Funky Drummer” (“Let the Bass Go”) and Foster Sylvers’ “Misdemeanor” (“It’s Funky Enough”) with The D.O.C.’s brittle yet authoritative voice, the two made funky cuts as energetic as anything from the East Coast. Sadly, The D.O.C. suffered a car crash that damaged his larynx, so this classic is our only proof of his incredible skills. It also includes Ice Cube’s last appearance with N.W.A. on the posse cut “The Grand Finale.”
Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique
Inspired by the sample collages of Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys and The Dust Brothers made an exhilarating hour of crazy sounds, B-boy raps and bizarre stories like “Egg Man.” The Beasties still have a bit of frat-boy thug left over from 1986’s Licensed to Ill — check “3 Minute Rule” and its boasts of taking ecstasy and smoking dust. But they’ve mostly outgrown that for an expansive vision of hip-hop psychedelia. Highlights include “Shadrach” and Ad-Rock’s galvanizing “A Year and a Day,” wherein he rhymes about “turning my dreams into reality” over The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady.”
- James Brown, “Funky Drummer”
- Boogie Down Productions, “South Bronx”
- Public Enemy, “Rebel Without A Pause”
- Public Enemy, “Bring The Noise”
- Public Enemy, “Security of the First World”
- Eric B. & Rakim, “Lyrics of Fury”
- Stetsasonic, “Sally”
- Salt-N-Pepa, “Let The Rhythm Run” (remix)
- Slick Rick, “The Moment I Feared”
- Ultramagnetic MCs, “Give the Drummer Some”
- NWA, “Fuck Tha Police”
- Run-D.M.C., “Run’s House”
- Beastie Boys, “Shadrach”
- Pop Will Eat Itself, “Not Now James, We’re Busy”
- Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
- The D.O.C., “Let The Bass Go”
- Geto Boys, “Mind of a Lunatic”
- Paris, “The Devil Made Me Do It”
- LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”
- Above the Law, “Murder Rap”
- Gerardo, “Rico Suave”
- Ice-T, “OG: Original Gangster”
- Naughty By Nature, “Hip Hop Hooray”
- Digable Planets, “Where I’m From”
- James Brown, “I’m Real”
(Rhapsody – July 31, 2012)
(Notes: The Livin’ Like Hustlas Rhapsody review was penned by another writer, so it is not included here.
Questions persist over whether “Security of the First World” relies on a sample from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.” It is not confirmed on WhoSampled.com.)